Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Coffee Trader

I read this because my husband really enjoys David Liss's writing and suggested I might like it. I rarely read anything he does (because I am not interested in all the ins and outs of wars, how to be a spy or navy seal, or how differences in Teslas improve MRI imaging), but I thought this might be a great crossover book - give us something to talk about at the table.

This is a manly book. The narrator follows Miguel Lienzo, a Portuguese Jew living in Amsterdam during the 17th century, who had escaped the Inquisition and now trades future commodities on the Dutch stock exchange. Miguel has lost all his fortune in the sugar trade and is currently living in his brother's damp basement, but has recently been introduced by an independent and ambitious Dutch widow to a relatively unheard of commodity: coffee. However, the Ma'amad, a ruling council of Jews, forbids all Jews from meeting with the Dutch in public (only one of many, many outlandish rules), which forces Miguel to create an intricate web of deceipt to carry out his ultimate goal of cornering the market and creating a European coffee monopoly, an act which would ultimately would make him a very, very rich man.

Ethics questions abound throughout the book as Miguel, the Ma'amad, the Dutch and all of society manipulate the rules in order to accomplish their own personal goals. At what point of these manipulation does the line of morality get crossed?

My husband liked the book because it contains a thriller-like tempo in regards to trading futures. Yes, I did just include the word "thriller" in a sentence describing economics. Who would have thought?

Well...David Liss did, and it sort of works. He manages to write the desperation and anxiety exchange trading involves, and even manges to write about the complexities of such a market without being overly technical or vague. However, in the end, it was still a novel about economics...and that, apparently, is one more thing I'm not interested in reading about.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Everything Is Illuminated

This book is hard to piece together. It's even harder to write about.

If Everything Is Illuminated had to be categorized onto one shelf, I'd assign it a spot alongside other books about the holocaust. Or maybe about love. No, it's about friendship. Scratch's really about loneliness.

Whatever it actually is about, Jonathan Safran Foer seems to be too odd of a man, and definitely too odd of an author, to define the book or narrow its focus. The minute the reader does, Foer changes the tempo and direction of the book. Sometimes, the stories of cruelty are cover-your-eyes horrible. Sometimes, the situations are uncomfortably obscene. Sometimes, the story and characters are folklorist-y bizarre. Sometimes, it's modern-age hilarious. A lot of the time, it's furrow-your-brow confusing. Everything definitely did not get illuminated for me.

With broad, sweeping strokes, I'll attempt to give a basic summary of the book. A young 20 year-old Jewish man, whose name also happens to be Jonathan Safran Foer, travels to the Ukraine in an attempt to track down a woman in a photograph named Augustine, who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. To help him, he hires a tour guide/translator named Alex, whose English appears to have been mostly learned directly from a thesaurus. The nouns and verbs he chooses are almost always slightly off, but kind of, sort of close, and the reader is forced to translate almost all of Alex's narrative into actual English. Part of the book is written as letters from Alex to Jonathan as explanations for his translations and editions. Some of it is what the character Jonathan Safran Foer writes as his novel (after his return from his trip) and some of it is narrative of the actual trip, given by Alex. When the parts are put together as a whole novel, the reader is forced to be quite patient and thorough to finish the book actually understanding all of what happened, and even more willing to be content with its loose ends that will never be tied.

While Alex's broken English can certainly be funny, it slows down the pace of the novel (because it's impossible to read it fast) too much. Thankfully, his conversational skills do improve and his letters to Jonathan towards the end are much more accessible. Additionally, because both Alex and Jonathan are young and male, there is quite a bit of sexual humor that turns out to be quite harmless, and even slightly endearing, but still makes the overall effect a bit R-rated.

There are so many characters to keep track of and I'm not exactly certain if I figured out who was who and if they mattered. Ultimately, I think most didn't matter because, again, I think the take-home message is meant to be about the horrors of the holocaust and how good people can do bad things. If not, then I missed a whole lot.

If you do attempt this book, read it patiently. It might help to read it as part of a group effort. Then, perhaps if you're able to talk it through and everyone brings their own understanding into a collective whole, everything about this novel might actually BECOME illuminated.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Time Traveler's Wife

I originally read this about five years ago when it was a super popular best seller and absolutely loved it. I recall recommending it freely, only to be chagrined later on with the realization that the book is really not intended for the sensitive reader. With my first reading, Niffenegger managed to "smoke and mirror" her way around the book's frequent crude language and descriptive love scenes because Time Traveler's plot was so incredibly original.

After attempting a discussion with a friend who very recently read it, I realized most of my memory of the book was too faded for a legitimate conversation. I picked up the enormous hardbound copy at the library and quickly found myself escaping in the tricky time traveling romance and doomed love story once again. It really is such a fantastic idea and when I finished, I found myself still scratching my head in wonder about how Niffenegger got the idea for this book in the first place, and feeling slightly overwhelmed by its desperate ending.

The smoke and mirrors weren't as effective the second time around, however, as I felt more offended by the crude language used by both Clare and Henry. I'm not a prude who regards all language as inappropriate, and think sometimes the character's background or emotional outburst warrants the feeling such language manages to evoke. But it felt really unnecessary most of the time. Clare and Henry are both such smart characters, so capable of better verbs and adjectives. Additionally, neither seems particularly rash or impetuous - so their casual dropping of vulgar words only seemed...vulgar.

If you care about those things, you probably won't enjoy this book. If you can justify looking past it to read a story unlike anything you've ever read, you might just love this book. I did.


This book tried to be deeper than it was. It's theme of "one small decision can change the future for generations" isn't the mind boggling concept the literary world thinks it is. Of course our decisions change the future. Duh.

The author, Penelope Lively, attempts to connect three generations of women, grandmother to granddaughter, through art. The art mentioned was significant to Lorna, a woman raised in a pre World War II upper middle class family, because she chose a completely different life than her parents by marrying an artist and choosing to live a simple, old fashioned way of life in a humble cottage in the country. Matt and Lorna's are simplistically happy, in spite of their poverty, until Matt is tragically killed in the war, leaving behind a young daughter, Molly. While Matt's pieces of work become quite valuable later on and periodically appear in the lives of his daughter and granddaughter, the appearances seem to be nothing more than a prop gimmick and not as consequential to the life decisions Molly and Molly's daughter, Ruth, as Lively leads her readers to think. These "twists of fate" she often produced for her characters instead seemed to me to be much more likely the result of their unorthodox childhoods.

Consequences is a decent book with very good descriptive writing, but even that doesn't make up for its weak plot. Individually, the women's stories were interesting and had some great development, but the overall effect of including all three in one story produces a rushed and thin result.

Great Expectations

As my husband got into bed last night and looked over to see what I was reading, he said, "You're still reading Great Expectations?" I admit that I have not been able to plow through this book. Instead, I have taken many, many detours and interspersed three different, easier-to-read books along the way. I finally finished last night, after about three weeks of off and on reading. Still, I have to say that it's a wonderful book. Like many wonderful books, it should be included on some list called"Great Books That Are Boring". As this was my first attempt reading Dickens's fiction ( also to be considered semi auto-biographical) and I was surprised by how much I loved it but even more surprised by how much I hated it.

Charles Dickens is my kind of guy. He's funny (tons of humorous parenthetical details that add so much to the story) and he's wordy. In the earlier parts of the book, I found myself thinking, "Finally! A truly funny author! Why have I been assuming I have to read Jennifer Weiner or Sophie Kinsella or even David Sadaris to get a laugh? Dickens is funny!" He also really knows how to paint a scene. From the food to the positions of the characters in a room to someone's smell to how they are feeling, Dickens leaves no detail out. This worked great for me...until I got bored. Then, I felt irritated and impatient and simply wanted to know what was going to happen. Enough with the side comments! Enough.

The story begins with young Pip (thus nicked-named due to his Christian name being Philip Pirrip), a young orphan of seven, being brought up by his cruel older sister and her husband, Joe Gargary. One evening, Pip finds himself in the marshes and is cornered by an escaped convict, Magwitch. With the threat of losing his life, Pip helps the convict escape by bringing him a file he found among blacksmith Joe's tools along with some food. Pip continues in his simple, lower-class lifestyle until he is asked to entertain an old,wealthy spinster, Miss Havisham, and her haughty adopted daughter, Estella. It is through this encounter that Pip learns about the finer things in life and begins to aspire to be a gentleman.

His life is suddenly completely changed when he is informed by Miss Havisham's lawyer that he is to become a gentleman, on behalf of an anonymous benefactor. Assuming this benefactor to be Miss Havisham, and that she did this to allow for a future marriage between himself and Estella, whom he has fallen in love with, he adopts this lifestyle in both thought and deed. This transformation perversely changes many good qualities about Pip and in addition to the refinement and education gained, he also gained an attitude of pride and snobbery.

In the end, when his "great expectations" are destroyed, Pip is left with a decision about what kind of man he is to become without the fortune he anticipated having. The themes, attitudes and moral lessons in this story are timeless and what makes Great Expectations a classic.

While Dickens's wordiness gets in the way of the story at times, his gift of weaving life lessons into a narrative ultimately makes it worth the effort. Yes...even a three-week effort.